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Episode 44: Olympic Marathon Trials Predictions

In Episode 44 we share pre-race thoughts from past guests who are running in the Olympic Trials in L.A. on Saturday (and a few who aren’t). When asked who may surprise to the upside, Nick Arciniaga and Tyler McCandless had the same answer. Gregg and Brenn offer their predictions. True to form, Gregg plays it right down the middle while Brenn plays the longshots. On your mark, get set…

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Berlin Preview: Shalane’s “Daunting Task” Familiar to Us All

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Shalane Flanagan en route to 2nd place finish in 2:28:40 at the 2010 NYC Marathon, her debut at the distance.

Shalane Flanagan’s mindset as she readies for the BMW Berlin Marathon this Sunday is familiar to far less accomplished runners. Instead of focusing on the win per se, Shalane’s focus will be on a specific time.

Of course in Shalane’s case, the time happens to be 2:19:35 or better, which would make her the fastest U.S. women’s marathoner ever, breaking Deena Kastor‘s record set in London in 2006.

What this means is Flanagan has no doubt been obsessed with a certain number, namely 5:19, the pace she needs to crank out every mile on the fast, flat course in Berlin.  Just like those of us trying to break 3 hours, for example, have 6:52 etched in our brains.

And for all runners, stretching our limit from the get-go can be nerve-racking.

“I may epically fail, but at least I’ll find out whether I have what it takes. It’s a daunting task,” she told Runner’s World recently.

Shalane’s willingness to openly discuss her record ambition is atypical, as most runners tend to be coy about specific time goals (an exception would be our recent guest Christo Landry who is looking for a 2:10:51 or better in Chicago to become the second fastest American this year). But Shalane seems to enjoy laying it all on the line, leaving little mystery. Typically, her strategy has been to attempt to break her competitors’ will with relentless front-running, such as at this year’s Boston Marathon. Her competitors at Berlin know they will have to run fast to win.

This Sunday, she’ll be tuning out the other women and, for the majority of the race, staring at the shoulder blades of personal pacers Ryan Vail of the U.S. and Rob Watson of Canada, who are both training for fall marathons.

Some may say that even splits with pacers and no surges makes for a boring race to watch. But like any marathon, the drama will build. Will she be able to hold on in the latter stages of the race? If she is in the hunt for a win (which she should be if she is running 2:19 pace), how will that affect her race? It’s hard to believe that she won’t also try to bag a World Marathon Major win, the first by an American female since Kastor won Chicago in 2005.

Flanagan chose Berlin over Chicago, another pancake-flat course, mainly because of the greater predictability of the weather. She has some company in Dennis Kimetto, one of the favorites on the men’s side along with Tsegaye Kebede and Emmanuel Mutai. Kimetto ran a sparkling 2:03:45 course record in the Windy City last year but has said that he believes Berlin is faster. The weather appears favorable though not ideal, with high-50s to low-60s temps, little wind, but also little cloud cover forecast.

Our guess for Flanagan? We think she has the ability to break the record, and she said she’s fitter than ever for the marathon, so we’re giving her at least a 50-50 shot. Her 2:22:02 at this year’s Boston was under perfect conditions, with a slight tailwind, but the flatter course of Berlin should yield an additional couple of minutes. She was on sub-2:19 pace halfway at Boston. With a slightly slower first half and even splits, she could still set the record.

We also think there’s at least as good a chance she wins the race outright. Of the other main contenders,  notably Ethiopia’s Feyse Tadese and Tirfi Tsegaye, none have a personal best better than 2:21, and the absolute best in the world are elsewhere, with Rita Jeptoo and Florence Kiplagat running Chicago and Priscah Jeptoo and Mary Keitany running New York.

On the other hand, being in great shape gives a runner a chance at a breakthrough performance, but it doesn’t guarantee one. Further, both Tadese and Tsegaye know Flanagan’s hand. Their response may be to hop on board the Flanagan-Vail-Watson train and wait to strike with a hard surge with a few miles left. Will Shalane have the strength and speed to respond? Either way it will be fun to watch.

USA Outdoors Start Lists, And The Winners Are…

The distance events at the USATF Track & Field Championships kick off Thursday in Sacramento, and there are clear favorites in most of the races. In an “off” year with no Olympics or World Championships, it’s all about winning, as second or third won’t win you a ticket to a larger stage.

If Galen Rupp runs the 10,000, he should cruise (his qualifying mark is full minute faster than the next fastest, Ryan Vail‘s 27:44). Jenny Simpson and Molly Huddle should handle the 1,500 and 5,000. Evan Jager and Emma Coburn are heavy favorites in the steeples, and Duane Solomon should take the men’s 800. The women’s 10,000 also boasts a heavy favorite in Shalane Flanagan, but this is where things get interesting.

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Kim Conley en route to a PR of 8:44 in the 3000m at Diamond League NYC

Also in the women’s 10,000, which starts at 8:20 PM PCT on Thursday night (11:20 EDT) is Sacramento’s own Kim Conley, who ran 31:48 at Payton Jordan and who more recently set a PR in the 3,000 at the adidas Grand Prix in New York. She and Jordan Hasay, who ran 31:39 at Payton Jordan, will hope to be within striking distance of Shalane and utilize their track speed towards the end. It may not be as easy for Shalane to break these two as it was for her to break the field in a hot race at U.S. Outdoors in Des Moines last year.

Will Galen Rupp run the men’s 5,000, and if so, will he be challenged? The 5000 is the day after the 10,000. If Rupp doesn’t scratch after the 10,000 (and if he’s not busy attending to newborn twins), he’ll be facing relatively fresh competition. Bernard Lagat ran an un-Lagat-like 13:31 at Pre, but historically Lagat has had Rupp’s number, including at last year’s 5,000 at USAs when Rupp was seen as the favorite. Hassan Mead should also be in the mix. Missing from the race is Ben True, who is hoping to run a fast 5000 at the Diamond League race in Paris on July 5.

The men’s 1,500 and the women’s 800 are both wide open. Without Matt Centrowitz, the men’s 1,500 will likely go to Leo Manzano or Will Leer, with David Torrence in the mix. Brenda Martinez and Channelle Price go head to head in the women’s 800. It will be interesting to see what  Maggie Vessey will be wearing, and after her strong performance and fashion statement at the Prefontaine Classic, whether she’ll compete for the win.

Pick the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon teams

As elite marathoners reboot between their big spring and fall races, it’s time to take a peak into the future. The 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are set for Feb. 13, 2016 in Los Angeles. It’s a wide-open field, and we’ve included some names that haven’t yet given the marathon a go, but a lot can change in a few years. Let us know who you think will make the team. And if you happen to be one of the elites ON the list, yes, you may vote for yourself!

Amazing races: Meb and Shalane at the Boston Marathon

A great deal in a marathon is beyond a runner’s control: cramping, upset stomach, injury, race-day illness, or just “not having it” can keep a runner in the best shape of his or her life from achieving a personal record.

If Shalane and Meb were, like amateurs, focused on PRs, Shalane might be happier about her race, given that she cut her PR by three and a half minutes, while Meb sliced his by 36 seconds. But of course they are not amateurs. Elites whose goal is to win face a different obstacle from the rest of us, namely, the performance of other elites.

Meb and Shalane ran generally similar front-running races at the Boston Marathon. One reason why Meb won and Shalane finished 7th is that Meb’s competition, including Lelisa Desisa, Dennis Kimetto, Micah Kogo, and Gebre Gebremarian, drastically underperformed (Kogo was the only one of the four to finish, in a time of 2:17:12), while on the women’s side, Rita Jeptoo, Buzu Deba, and others outdid themselves.

Shalane’s time of 2:22:02 is 13 minutes, 25 seconds slower than Meb’s winning time of 2:08:37.  Besides this year, there have been only three Boston marathons when the difference between the men’s and women’s winning times were 13:25 or less (1991, 2002, and 2005). Looking at all marathons, Meb’s time was the tenth fastest by an American male, Shalane’s was fifth fastest by an American woman. Though seventh wasn’t the place Shalane was targeting at Boston, it is a place higher than how Mo Farah finished at London.

Meb and Shalane both ran from the front, but Shalane took it to the competition from the very moment the race started. Even at the fluid stations, she quickly regained the lead after grabbing her bottle. These mini-surges didn’t help her in the end, but they were likely part of a larger psychological strategy that gave her the best chance to win – give the competition no break. Shalane tried to exert a modicum of control over the biggest uncontrollable element, the performance of her competitors, by forcing a fast race. Jeptoo admitted after the race that she didn’t feel well early on. Perhaps if she had felt just a touch worse, she would have fallen back, and the rest of the chase pack would have had to decide whether to go with the American contender or stick with the returning champion.

Meb exerted looser control over the men’s race. He was near the front of a much larger pack until he and Josphat Boit moved up between eight and nine miles in. For a short time Boit had a small lead. When Meb looked back late in the race, he may have been surprised to see that it was Wilson Chebet giving chase, not Desisa or Kimetto. While Shalane’s competitors took her as a serious threat, Meb’s competitors seemed not to worry.

Not only was Meb’s victory unforseen by his competitors, it was unforseen by the press. Like other running media outlets, we targeted Shalane as having the best chance among Americans to win. Heading in to the race, Meb’s marathon PR was only the 15th fastest among the men (Shalane’s was 16th fastest among the women), but his prior Boston PR of 2:09:26 from 2010 was faster than the times of the top three – Desisa, Kogo, and Gebremarian – at last year’s race. Kimetto and Desisa’s 2:03- and 2:04-handle races had come on flat courses. Boston is famed for its hills.

Why did we discount Meb? The competition and his age, 38, teetering on 39 (Shalane is 32). For amateurs, a newfound focus on running can lead to improvement in the late 30s, into the 40s, and beyond. Better training trumps natural physical decline. For pros, new PRs at ages closer to 40 than 30 are highly unusual because the pros generally spend much of their adult lives training hard, so improvements in training that offset natural physical decline are more difficult to achieve. Meb ran the 10,000 at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, won the silver at the Athens Olympics in 2004, and came in 4th at the London Olympics in 2012. Suddenly, we don’t see Rio 2016, assuming Meb doesn’t retire now at the top of his game, as out of the question for him.

Episode 22: Taper and the Toad

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It’s taper time for Boston marathoners, and Tyler McCandless makes a quick return to cloud259 with advice on how to spend the last week before a race. Elsewhere in episode 22, we ponder how Ryan Hall and Shalane Flanagan will run at Boston, recap the crowning of Wilson Kipsang at the London Marathon, and tell the tale of a toad that stole the hearts of Manchester, England.

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On the Road Again – NYC Half and Gate River Run

The elite running scene shifts from Mondo to asphalt this weekend with two marquee events. Many of America’s best will be either at the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Fla. on Saturday, or the NYC Half on Sunday, headlined by internationals Mo Farah and Geoffrey Mutai.

The Gate River Run doubles as the U.S. 15K Championships. Ben True is the defending champ and told us in a recent podcast that he’s fit, but a bit tentative after skipping indoors with a balky hamstring. Expect to see Chris Derrick, coming off X-C victories both at Edinburgh and in the U.S. Cross Country Championships at Boulder, mixing it up with True. Bobby Curtis, who was runner-up to True last year, should also be in the hunt.

Shalane Flanagan, prepping for Boston, is the class of the River Run women’s field, which also features Janet Bawcom, Amy Hastings, and Amy Van Alstine, coming off an upset win over Jenny Simpson at XC Champs at Boulder. Look for Shalane to roll early, in patented fashion, and also hold off the lead men in the “equalizer” competition, which gives the elite women a six-plus minute head start.

At the NYC Half Farah and Mutai, the clear frontrunners, will give us a sneak preview of next month’s London Marathon. Mo won the NYC Half in 2011 and has a PR of 1:00:10 in the distance. Mutai has a 58:58 personal best in the half (on a faster course) and ran 2:03:02 at the wind-enhanced Boston marathon. Mo is the world’s best 10k runner, and Mutai is the world’s best marathoner. We give the edge in this race to Mo, since we think the half marathon is closer to a 10K than a marathon. For Mo to win, he needs to stay close to Mutai and then unleash his superior kick; whereas Mutai would need to work harder to gap Mo and then hold Mo off. We suspect Mutai would gladly trade a loss in NYC for a win in London.

Besides those two, Meb Keflezighi is back in form having just won the U.S. Half Marathon Champs in Houston with a 1:01 in January. Matt Tegenkamp will be making his half marathon debut.

The women’s side is tougher to call. The two best PRs in the field are Hilda Kibet (1:07:59 last year at the Roma-Ostia Half) and Caroline Kilel (1:08:16 at the World Half Marathon Champs in Birmingham, U.K. in 2009). There are at nine women just behind them with 1:09 or 1:10 PRs, including Desiree Linden (formerly Davila). Molly Huddle, the American record holder in the 5,000 meters, is making her half marathon debut, as is Sally Kipyego who won silver in the 10,000m at the 2012 Olympics. Huddle showed great form at the end of 2013 and recently ran a 15:13 5,000m indoors.

Among runners we’ve interviewed in our podcast, True, Nick Arciniaga, Jeannette Faber, and Tyler McCandless are racing in Jacksonville, while Reid Coolsaet, Jeffrey Eggleston, Jason Hartman, and Lisa Stublic are in the Big Apple.

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